Back in March 2014, S1 and S2’s grandmother passed unexpectedly of heart failure during surgery for an unrelated malady. In fact, she “coded” as S2 was just entering the hospital to visit her in recovery. S2 took her loss especially hard, as he was close to her, but the person who took it the hardest, as one would expect, was my former father in law. He (f. FIL) always thought it would be him that checked out first, given his slowly deteriorating health–a function of being a few years older than his wife, being very very very overweight, eating poorly, and having lived a physically rougher, harder, more challenging life. He was ready for him to die first, had life insurance policies all set, paid off the house, etc. As a result, f FIL thought f MIL, with her network of close friends and stable financial position, was comparably “set”, and didn’t worry much about what would happen to him if the inverse occurred. Thus he wasn’t psychologically ready for her to precede him and, while not challenged for money, he found himself without his only real friend. Suddenly alone, with few relationships to aid his resiliency, he reportedly found solace in casinos and other dissolutive activities and places which helped him pass the time and distract him from loss.
This reaction is in line with previous research that finds men take the loss of their wife harder than wives take the loss of a husband–suffering a 30% higher mortality rate. (For their part, according to the article, women grieve the loss of a child far more than they do the loss of a husband). Indeed, this description of widowers’ experience seems to fit f.FIL’s reaction quite well (bolded emphases mine):
While women who lose their husbands often speak of feeling abandoned or deserted, widowers tend to express the loss as one of “dismemberment,” as if they had lost something that kept them organized and whole. The Harvard Bereavement Study, a landmark investigation of spousal loss that took place in the Boston area during the late 1960s, reported that widowers often equated the death of their wives with the loss of their primary source of protection, support, and comfort. This went to the very core of their overall sense of wellbeing. It has been described as “being lost without a compass,” usually due to their profound loneliness but also because widowers often depended on their wives for many things like managing the household, caring for their children, and being their only true confidant. This sense of being lost is more profound when widowers need help but have difficulty obtaining or even asking for it. They also can experience ambiguity about the emotions they are feeling and the uncertainty of how to express them.
Reading the passage above, it appears that widowers and widows experience their loss differently. She loses covering, protection, partnership. He loses his helpmeet, his sole confidante, his primary and often only significant relationship. And it is the context of this loss of relationship, and the importance of them, that the following excerpts of a post over at Loveawake dating site, summarizing the findings of the Grant study, got my attention as a “life hack” for men. Fellas, the takeway is this: you gotta cultivate relationships and be relate-able for your own good.
When Vaillant crunched the numbers, he discovered no significant relationship between a man’s level of flourishing and his IQ, his body type (mesomorph, ectomorph, endomorph), or the income and education level of his parents. The factors that did loom large, and collectively predicted all ten Decathlon events [career success, professional prominence, mental health, physical health, a good marriage, supportive friendships, closeness to one’s children, the ability to enjoy work, love, and play, and subjective happiness], had one thing in common: relationships. This rubric included:
- A warm, supportive childhood
- A mature “coping style” (being able to roll with the punches, be patient with others, keep a sense of humor in the face of setbacks, delay gratification, etc.)
- Overall “soundness” as evaluated during college years (resilient, warm personality, social, not overly sensitive)
- Warm adult relationships between the ages of 37-47 (having close friends, maintaining contact with family, being active in social organizations)
- Vaillant found that the men who had the best scores in these areas during their youth and mid-life, were the happiest, most successful, and best adjusted in their latter years. This is the finding of the Grant Study that has emerged most prominently: “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
The powerful effect of intimate relationships can be seen in a variety of factors in a man’s life, including their income levels:
- Men with at least one good relationship with a sibling growing up made $51,000 more per year than men who had poor relationships with their siblings, or no siblings at all
- Men who grew up in cohesive homes made $66,000 more per year than men from unstable ones
- Men with warm mothers took home $87,000 more than those men whose mothers were uncaring
- The 58 men with the best scores for warm relationships made almost $150,000 more per year than the 31 men with the worst scores
- Remember that these men all entered the workforce with a Harvard education. Also remember that their parents’ socioeconomic status turned out not to be a significant factor in their own future income.
But for those of us with children, it’s not just our own relationships that matter, but the investment we make in our own sons that echoes into the future. To this end, the Grant study also found, unsurprisingly to this author, that the environment fathers and mothers make for their children in the home significantly impacted their sons’ material success and ability to secure and sustain relationships later in life:
In addition to finding that warm relationships in general had a positive impact on the men’s lives, Vaillant uncovered specific effects that stemmed from a man’s childhood, and from the respective influence of his mother and father…[T]he Grant Study found that abundant familial love, when coupled with an emphasis on autonomy and initiative, actually produced the most stoical (able to keep a stiff upper lip) and independent men. Such men, Vaillant explains, had learned to be comfortable with their feelings, and “that they could put their trust in life, which gave them courage to go out and face it.”
[A] mother who could enjoy her son’s initiative and autonomy was a tremendous boon to his future…mothers who celebrated their boys’ boyishness bolstered their chances of achieving a successful, mature manhood…the Grant Study found that a warm relationship with his mother was significantly associated with a man’s:, effectiveness at work, maximum late-life income, military rank at the end of WWII, inclusion in Who’s Who, IQ in college, verbal test scores, class rank in college, [and] mental competence at age 80.
The Grant Study also found influences that were associated exclusively with dads. Loving fathers imparted to their sons [an] enhanced capacity to play, more enjoyment of vacations, greater likelihood of being able to use humor as a healthy coping mechanism, better adjustment to, and contentment with, life after retirement, less anxiety and fewer physical and mental symptoms under stress in young adulthood.
In the negative column, it “was not the men with poor mothering but the ones with poor fathering who were significantly more likely to have poor marriages over their lifetimes.” Men who lacked a positive relationship with their fathers were also “much more likely to call themselves pessimists and to report having trouble letting others get close.”
If there was ever any doubt, fathers matter, a lot: When all is said and done, a man’s relationship with his father very significantly predicted his overall life satisfaction at age 75 — “a variable not even suggestively associated with the maternal relationship.”
This last passage about the impact of fathers is significant, for it tells us that men who themselves cultivate relationships and teach their sons to do the same grant substantial advantage to their children that echoes for generations.
But there is another relationship that hasn’t been mentioned yet: That of marriage. Marriage has long been known to benefit men, extend their lives, encourage them to be more productive, and to be the most ideal relationship within which to prepare their sons for a happy and successful life of his own. Conversely, the lack of it is associated with poor outcomes not only for men in the present, but for themselves in the future, many years down the road:
Vaillant evaluated the men according to “Adult Adjustment Outcome determinations” (a kind of earlier version of the Decathlon of Flourishing, from what I gather), he found that: “all of the fifty-five Best Outcomes had gotten married relatively early and stayed married for most of their adult lives. (And by the time those men were eighty-five, we learned later, only one marriage had ended in divorce.) In contrast, among the seventy-eight Worst Outcomes, five had never married, and by seventy-five years of age, thirty-five (45 percent) of the marriages had ended in divorce. Proportionately three times as many of the Best Adjusted men enjoyed lifelong happy marriages as the Worst.”
The effect of marriage was even starker for the inner-city men of the Glueck Study: “two-thirds of the never-married were in the bottom fifth in overall social relations, 57 percent were in the bottom fifth in income, and 71 percent were classified by the Study raters as mentally ill.”
Thus while lifelong marriage is a key predictor for a man’s long-term happiness, the lack of marriage, or having been divorced but not re-married, foretells poor social relationships overall and lower overall happiness and life satisfaction. Moreover, as marriage is the primary vehicle through which fathers invest in their children, being and staying married to the mother of one’s children provides a man’s children with greater opportunity for the sorts of warm father-son relationships that boys so desperately need to prepare them to be good husbands and fathers in their own right–and to enjoy a satisfying and successful life once they leave the house.
This is both hopeful and sobering news–hopeful in that this body of data clearly tells men that yes, they are important to their families, more than they probably realize, and sobering that a great many men are unable, for whatever reason, to invest in their children, and so many boys are raised in fatherless homes.
I’ll close this post by quoting a final line from Vaillant’s manuscript: “We don’t breed good officers; we don’t even build them on the playing fields of Eton; we raise them in loving homes.” Men would be well advised to not give short shrift to relationships but should instead make a point of liberally investing in them…with their wives, with their male friends, and with their sons.
About the author: EW is a well-trained monkey operating heavier-than-air machinery for a living. His interests outside of being an opinionated rabble-rouser are hunting, working out, motorcycling, spending time with his family, and flying. He is a father to four, a husband to one, and is a sometime contributor here at Spearhead.